Where Do Controllers Get Their Power?


Where does the controller’s power come from? We closed the last newsletter with this question. So let’s try to understand exactly how controllers acquire their capability. Why are they often successful? We all have the experience that the power of controllers comes from their use of rewards and punishments.

Having possession of rewards – the means for satisfying some need of the controllee – is one source of a controller’s power. If my child is very hungry, by exploiting exclusive access to the food I can use this reward power to make him set the table for me, saying, “Jimmy, if you set the table for me, you can sit down and start eating your dinner.” Or, if my daughter wants desperately to get a new dress, I can promise, “If you clean up your room every day this week, I’ll give you the money for your new dress.” This is controlling by promising consequences that will bring need-satisfaction to the child and thus be “rewarding.”

Another source of power is possessing the means to inflict pain, deprivation, or discomfort on children. Wanting my son to eat his vegetables, I might threaten him with “Until you eat your vegetables, you have to stay at the table and you can’t watch TV.” This is controlling by denying the child something that he or she wants, a consequence that will be felt as “punishing” or “aversive.”

Rewards and punishments – these are the ultimate sources of the power of controllers to control, disciplinarians to discipline, dictators to dictate.

With very young children, adults have in their possession a most impressive storehouse of things children want and need: food, candy, gum, toys, coloring books, movies plus all sorts of pleasant things like singing or reading to them, playing with them, piggybacking them, hugging and kissing them. Similarly, adults possess a mighty arsenal of punishments depriving them of any one of the above rewards, adults can inflict physical pain, restrain or restrict, confine children to their rooms, yell and scold, push them away, slap and spank them, force unwanted food down their throats, instill fears in them (“you won’t go to heaven,” “you’ll drive me to an early grave”), give them “dirty looks”, give them the silent treatment, and hundreds more that I am sure readers can recall from their childhood years.

The adult-child relationship is almost always one in which there is a great power differential – that is, the adult possesses far greater means to reward or punish the child than the child has means to reward or punish the adult. This becomes less true when children get to be teenagers, of course, and we’ll get to this over time in this newsletter but not before taking a good look at the mechanics of how rewards and punishments are supposed to work exactly in the next couple issues of the Family Connection.